Superficial Made Real – All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello

With attention paid to him back home and abroad, Adi Iskandar checks in with Soon King Yaw’s film.

Newspapers in Malaysia, especially the likes of The Malay Mail, has been giving plenty of attention of films and filmmakers of the nation making it abroad. This is not a particularly new thing, truth be told; go back more than a decade ago, and you’ll find stories of half-Malaysian beauty contestants ranking high in Western-based competitions headlining front pages. Guy Sebastian, a Malaysian-born Australian singer, was also given a similar red carpet treatment.

In his film, King Yaw tackles a more universal story. ‘All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello’ is an animated documentary recently feted at the KQED Homemade Film Festival. I’ve not heard of them before, but it turns out to be a media organisation based in Northern California in the United States, with its own radio, television and digital outlets. This festival is the first of its kind, and King Yaw’s film is the premiere of this premiere, which is quite an honour indeed.

It is focused on an experience of Michelle Man, our protagonist. Set at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she relates a harrowing experience at the airport. As she lined up, waiting for her turn, she notices a mother and her young child gazing upon her. Michelle greets them from afar, flashing them a smile as she does so. However, instead of reciprocating this common courtesy, the mother would drag her daughter away, telling her to wash her hands.

The rest of the film would play out in a more sedate manner, as Michelle reflects upon that experience with some regret. She recognises how, in the bigger picture, this is not a new thing: “I was reminded that some of my fellow humans have to endure this on a daily basis.” That ‘this’ is the discrimination based on difference, focusing on skin colour in particular. Couched in the context of China, identified as the origin of the coronavirus pandemic the world is dealing with now, ‘this’ has resulted in greater marginalisation of those from and of East Asia.

The infodemic many has been afflicted can be blamed. Flooded with information of the unknown, a lot (especially in Western nations) would fall back on their ignorance, adding fuel to the fire of misinformation. The end result of this is a fear-mongering disease difficult to douse through science and facts. Michelle’s experience and more reminds me of a common refrain in the films of Dain Said, proceeding somewhere along the lines of people always fearing that which they do not know.

Her profession, as a pharmacist, makes this even more ridiculous. In her dayjob, she is seen as one of the frontliners this war. The story is very different when the (medical) gloves are off. “She shared how it’s a weird tension to be an Asian-American while working in healthcare in these current times,” said King Yaw in his director’s statement. “There’s a difference in treatment when she has her white coat on versus when it’s off.” Inadvertently, that anecdote reflects another way in which a certain kind of whiteness (covering the difference beneath) is accepted.

I must add a refrain of my own to all this. As noted earlier, these forms of fear (though not always overtly expressed) are not particularly new. Asian-Americans may be seen by many as the model minority now, but one does not need to look too far back for evidence of their exclusion. Historically, that is a community who has been treated harshly. Even as we move further away from the contexts of global military conflicts, other outbreaks at the turn of the century (most notably SARS) has also led to patterns of discrimination similar to what we’re seeing now.

Going beyond that identity, ‘All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello’ was made before the resurgence of Black Lives Matter movements following the death of George Floyd; this subsequent context hammers home the not only the unfortunate ubiquity of such discourses, but how it relates to that hyphenation between Asian and American.  Greater awareness of all this requires little more than opening your eyes and paying attention.

This is perhaps something Soon Yaw himself may be aware of. Being a Chinese Malaysian, racism is not something he has to go to the other side of the planet to flex creatively with. You can add on another layer of identity, that of being a Sabahan (and thus an East Malaysian, often marginalised in a West Malaysian context). As an aside, he hails from Tawau, the same town Geoffrey Sinn Chun Hou (director of ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’) comes from; there must be something in the waters there that animates these animators’ instincts.

For the animation is indeed worth celebrating. Given the situation, King Yaw had to work fairly rapidly, not only to plan his story, but also to craft the animation at hand. The style I see is vibrant, bright and breezy colours complementing minor movements bleeding from one frame to another, stitching together the different shots and scenes. A particular favourite is representing the woman in question as a deer in headlights. In addition to succinctly capturing the inherent points, it is as funny as it is creative.

In researching his work, I also discovered ‘Something Carved and Real’, another narrator-driven documentary. Similar to this, that film also looked at skin-deep notions of identity and judgement, dealing specifically with scars. I particularly like the inclusion of mutilated art, standing in for the actual physical versions of themselves. It was so effective I had to pause at points, something which says as much about me as it did about him.

What ‘All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello’ says about King Yaw is that he is someone interested in the superficial made real. I did wonder just how truly earth-shattering Michelle’s experience is; perhaps there is a need for greater and more critical interactions with difference on that front as well. Equally important is King Yaw’s inspiration point for this film: “I was moved by her story – by how she responded to the discrimination with first, self-contemplation, and then the spirit of love and forgiveness.” Coupled with Jackson Soon’s piano keys, I suppose that is something worth celebrating indeed, whether in newspapers back home or elsewhere.

Featured image credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels

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